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“Are you from India? Wow! I love India!”
I can’t tell you how many times I heard these words. And they were usually followed by either “I’ve been to India” or “I can’t wait to go to India”. Complete strangers will walk up to you in the street — or the local street-food vendor as he’s plating your hummus — and ask you that. I’ve never felt as proud of my name, my identity, my skin, as I did walking down the street in Jerusalem, Israel.
I spent my summer in Israel this year and as someone who has lived and travelled in 35 countries, I can safely say that no people have been as welcoming as the Israelis. My dad asked me, when I was leaving Israel, what I would miss most about the place. The food? The beautiful women? I thought for a second and said, “I’ll miss being Indian here.” Let me explain.
Aside from India, I’ve lived in the United Kingdom, United States, Singapore, Hong Kong and Germany. In the UK, U.S. and Singapore, because there are so many well-integrated Indians, you don’t really stand out in the crowd. No one bats an eyelid when you walk down the street. In Hong Kong, though there are many affluent Indian expats, I always felt an undercurrent of mistrust between the local Cantonese people and anyone with brown skin like me. Sometimes it was overt rudeness. Not that Indians are generally particularly friendly to East-Asian-looking people either, from my experience. Germany was unique in that not only was I exotic as an Indian, but I was revered and cherished by society — from new acquaintances at bars to strangers curiously nodding “guten morgen” towards me on the street. I’ve been lucky enough in my life to have travelled widely in the Asia-Pacific, Europe and Africa but Germany was the best place to be an Indian that I’d come across. Until now.
Some background. I was doing a 10-week summer internship for a solar energy company in Jerusalem. I got funding from my university in the U.S., where I’m currently doing my masters. I had been to Israel once before — March this year — on a university-sponsored “policy trek”, to tour the country and meet leaders, NGOs, journalists and students to understand the political climate in Israel, its regional conflicts and local social issues. While I was engaging with people in Israel and Palestine on the trip, I was part of a larger American university delegation and didn’t really have a chance to see what those very same stakeholders thought about India. After spending this summer there, however, I can sense a definitely affinity for India emanating from Israel and I’d like to identify a few key reasons why.
^ Israeli students Oshrit Birvadker (right) and Danit Sheeffer get a feel for the architecture at Madhab temple in Hajo in Kamrup district of Assam during their 2010 travel to India with the '15th Know Indian Programme' | Ritu Raj Konwar
First and foremost, according to me, is that India connection that most young Israelis get very early on. After the 3-year mandatory national military service, a large proportion of Israelis travel to India — especially north India — to relax and unwind. The army is where many Israelis form bonds, not just with each other but with the founding principles of their homeland. It is interesting that many members of certain social groups within Israel — particularly the ultra-Orthodox Jews and the Arabs — are exempt from this duty and this is a big topic of debate within Israel. Many Israelis go straight into the active combat roles straight after high-school. As a result, many of them — having been around conflict and tension for so long — spend months in India, where they cherish India’s religious openness, tolerance and — let’s be honest — it’s ganja. If you’ve ever been trekking up in Manali and Kasol, you may have come across a group of dreadlocked Israelis sitting around and taking in the ‘fresh mountain air’ — among other things.
Unlike many Western tourists, who come to India to sight-see and find the true meaning of life, my impression is that most young Israelis come to India to escape their own lives. In my opinion, there is no better way to build bridges between countries than to expose young adults to those countries on their own terms. Young Israelis know India’s food, its movies and its culture. They are tired and angry about the mistreatment of women in India — especially foreign tourists — just like most Indians are. In the streets in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, you may pass a group of young men eating falafel who will catch your eye and say, “ Aap kaise ho [how are you]!”
A second — albeit smaller — reason for the strength of the India-Israel connection is that there are Indians already living and working in Israel as medical-care professionals in the form of nurses or care-takers for the elderly. I’d usually see them walking around a deserted Jerusalem on Saturdays (everything is closed on Saturday for Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest). I saw many Indians helping old ladies across the street and pushing old men in wheelchairs up Jerusalem’s hilly avenues.
^ Falafel on display in Hyderabad. | P.V. Sivakumar
Older Israelis, especially the more conservative Jews, see India as a new global partner because of increasingly aligning national interests, particularly because of the threat from fundamentalist Islamist terror that both India and Israel grapple with. At a bilateral level, the Indian and Israeli governments are cooperating more and more. It seems Netanyahu is growing closer to Modi — though, these days, who isn’t? It came as a surprise to me that so many Israelis know about the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai. From house-wives to Rabbis that I spoke to, many Israelis are acutely aware of the targeting of the synagogue & Jewish centre at Mumbai’s Chabad House and the murder of Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife Rivky. Israel faces terror attacks in the form of rocket attacks and stabbings, as a result of the conflict with Palestine.
Whether Israel is justified in its strategy towards Palestine, is another matter. One of my biggest learnings about Israel, Palestine and the conflict is the intellectual paucity of the question, “Are you pro-Israel or pro-Palestine?”. To me, that question is vapid and self-defeating. I believe that it is possible to feel deeply for the plight of the Palestinian people and feel that Israel is sometimes heavy-handed in its approach but at the same time, fully respect Israel’s right to protect its citizens and condemn acts of terror committed against the innocent. There are so many groups within Israel and Palestine who are critical of their government’s actions. This brings me to my next point.
My sense is that, tacitly, both Indians and Israelis feel that they are wrongly viewed by the rest of the world as the ‘bad guy’ when it comes to their preeminent regional conflicts — namely Kashmir and Palestine. Perhaps this is only true of conservatives within both countries who actually care what the rest of the world thinks? With Israelis — old and young — there is this prevailing desire to change world opinion about them. Small example: I was watching the Olympics with some family-friends in the affluent township of Herzliya and we watched the now infamous incident of the Egyptian wrestler shunning his Israeli’s opponent’s handshake unfold live. The lady of the house turned to me and said, “See: every time we reach out to them they say no”.
It was a poignant moment for me because it shows how deeply the disconnect with the Arab world runs and that the widespread condemnation of Israel’s actions towards Palestine has clearly gotten to many Israelis — even the affluent, cosmopolitan liberals. They want to change the traditional narrative in the media and present their side of the story, just as many Indians wish to do about Kashmir. There is some intangible kinship there, between our two peoples.
Politics — specifically religious politics — always surround you in Israel. I felt ethnic/communal tensions much more acutely in Israel than I ever did in India, though this shouldn’t come as a surprise since Israel is a Jewish state while India is secular state. It came as a surprise to me that 1/5th of the Israeli population is Arab, with the vast majority of them being Muslims. I asked myself: would I have enjoyed my time in Israel as much if I was religious? Or if I was a Muslim Indian? As it happens, I am an atheist. However, in my interactions with Israelis I was often asked what my religion was and when I said that I was raised as a Hindu but I wasn’t religious, they usually replied with “ah, so you’re secular”. You can’t escape the question of religion in Israel.
As someone used to secular India, it was hard to get used to everything — even public transport — being closed from Friday evening to Saturday evening for Shabbat. It made traveling around the country on weekends a challenge. What I did notice when traveling around Israel, is how different the everyday manifestations of ethnic tensions are.
For instance, in the southern city of Sderot which is close to Gaza, rocket attacks from Gaza are a common occurrence and when we met the mayor of Sderot in March, he was as much of a right-wing Jewish nationalist as you’d expect. The kindergartens in his city were hit by Palestinian rockets; as someone on the front lines of the conflict, he seemed to have little time for a nuanced discussion about why the Palestinians were firing rockets. They were his enemy and in many ways, it was sad to see someone so fervent in his distaste for the Arabs.
You feel the religious tension in Jerusalem as well. There have been some knife attacks in the city in recent times and while I was living in the city, a pipe-bomber was apprehended before he could detonate his explosives on a crowded morning tram. The people in my office in Jerusalem told me that Jews are not advised to walk through the Arab quarter of the city wearing their traditional ‘kippah’ caps. On the other hand, I have seen Orthodox Jews patrolling the city centre on the eve of Shabbat, castigating the restaurant owners who had chosen to remain open to cater to tourists; stories of women dressed “immodestly” being attacked in ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighbourhoods are common.
^ An artwork by Swedish artist Peter Hellbom of a hot air ballon in the shape of a head can be seen on display at the Rabin square in Tel Aviv, Israel July 20, 2016. | Reuters
Tel Aviv was another story: it reminded me a bit of Hong Kong, with its high-rise buildings, balmy weather and ultra-cosmopolitan people. You don’t feel the spectre of fundamentalist religion like you do in other places — in fact, the people you meet there are more like those you’d come across in New York. Tel Aviv is about beaches, tech start-ups and partying. Haifa, in the north, was interesting because it has a large, well-integrated Arab population and locals told me that the city celebrates its ethno-religious diversity better than anywhere else in Israel. It made me question my own relationship with religion in Mumbai and I realised that for me, living in a Hindu family, it boiled down to going to Mohammed Ali Road to eat awesome food during Eid and to our Christian friends’ houses in Bandra to eat awesome food at Christmas and to my grandparents’ house in Khar to eat awesome food during Ganesh Chathurthi. Make of that what you will!
Usually, having an Indian passport is a hindrance for a traveller. You are viewed cautiously by immigration officials in most advanced countries as a potential immigrant. Not in Israel. I had no trouble getting my visa in New York or navigating immigration at Tel Aviv Airport. On the contrary, I was welcomed every time. Israel is a beautiful, complicated country and I would encourage Indian tourists to go explore it for themselves and form their own conclusions. In most countries I’ve travelled to, when I tell them I’m a visitor from India, they smile and say “great!”. In Israel, they look you in the eye and say “welcome”. They really mean it. They express honour that you’ve chosen to come. If you go to Israel as an Indian, prepared to be welcomed.